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Books and Culture

Jerry Weinberger
Eat the Documentary
HBO’s profile of star chef Paul Liebrandt is a must-see for foodies.
17 June 2011

Sally Rowe’s HBO documentary, A Matter of Taste, about the extraordinary career of Paul Liebrandt, chef and co-owner of Corton in New York City, is not to be missed. In a 2009 article for City Journal, “America’s Food Revolution,” I argued that the blazing American food scene is democratic, not elitist, and that our growing legion of great and good chefs consists of risk-taking artist-entrepreneurs who come from nowhere and work hard before they achieve fame and fortune. With Liebrandt and others in mind, I argued as well that the great chef is at once a tyrant in the kitchen and a slave to the endeavor. All of this is demonstrated in spades in this sparkling new film.

Liebrandt indeed came from nowhere: Rhodesian-born and the only child of soon-to-divorce parents, he grew up in a boarding school in England, where the food, he reports, could be compared with that served in the Soviet Gulag. Lonely and probably a disappointment to his father, who wanted him to join the military, Liebrandt relates that he wound up in the culinary version of the Special Forces. He started his career as a teenager working for Michelin Guide three-star chef Marco Pierre White and two-star Richard Neat in London and two-star Raymond Blanc in Oxford (where Liebrandt was decidedly not a student in any college) and then spent a year in Paris with three-star chef Pierre Gagnaire before moving to New York in 1999. Gagnaire changed his life, Liebrandt says, because from him he learned how to deconstruct and then reconstruct classical gastronomic forms: to “tweak or twist them.”

The road to Corton wasn’t easy. After becoming the youngest chef (at Atlas in New York) to win three stars from the New York Times in 2000, the 24-year-old Liebrandt soon found himself at odds with the owners over the menu and quit. He wound up at a mediocre bistro, Papillon, where he soon won two New York Times stars: still a signal accomplishment, former Times food critic William Grimes tells us, for someone cooking in such a “dump,” yet a step down from where he’d been. The post-9/11 mood and economic slump caused New York diners to give up gastronomy for comfort food, and so Papillon turned to burgers and fries. Liebrandt gave up in just three months, lest his “brain turn to jelly.”

Life was up and down after Papillon—Liebrandt even worked as a consultant for a marshmallow company—until three years later, he landed the head gig at Gilt, an expensive new restaurant in the New York Palace Hotel. Stepping up to the challenge of working with hotel people in addition to cooks, Liebrandt put together a cerebral and challenging menu that the great chef and restaurateur Thomas Keller tells us was a “light-years” extension of Liebrandt cooking: the same techniques, but with a new personality and mature point of view. Frank Bruni of the Times disagreed, however, and in a 2006 review gave Liebrandt a disappointing two stars. Already at odds with a hotel mistrustful of his menu and preferring large portions of whatever for GM executives, Liebrandt was fired a few months later. (How times have changed: Gilt now has two Michelin stars under the direction of Justin Bogel!)

By the beginning of 2007, Liebrandt found himself an out-of-work celebrity, covered in Vogue but with no way to pay the rent. He freelanced, working for a beverage company, inventing such things as encapsulated vodka tonics that look like sushi-shaped ice cubes. The people shown popping them in their mouths looked happy enough. To the redemptive rescue, according to the famous restaurateur Drew Nieporent, came—none other than Drew Nieporent, who tapped Liebrandt to reopen his closed Tribeca restaurant, Montrachet. In June 2008, the Times announced that in two months, Montrachet would return as Liebrandt’s Corton.

At this point, the documentary shifts into frenetic high gear. The restaurant has to be physically redesigned, and a staff of young people—line cooks and servers and runners—assembled and trained, and a thousand details decided. Here’s where we see the real nitty-gritty of great restaurant kitchen life. Liebrandt fumes and curses in the hot, cramped, and ill-equipped test kitchen used to develop the menu and techniques and production drill for Corton. At one point, a dish done well early in a preparatory day is later done poorly, and Liebrandt screams to the two young cooks responsible: “How can you do this to me? Looks like fucking dog shit on a plate. I’m only as good as the weakest links in my team, and right now you’re them. Do this again and I’ll ram your heads though the wall.” He yells at a server not to lean against a wall—“very unelegant”—and warns a sick-looking young man to give up the late-night girls: girls come and go, but a career is for the long haul.

This sentiment mirrors a terrific earlier scene, in which Liebrandt, ending a kitchen telephone conversation, turns to the camera and says: “Avid fans calling me up. It’s like, phenomenal. ‘Are you single?’ I’m like, ‘Sorry, I’m married to my kitchen.’” (Actually, Liebrandt has a live-in girlfriend: the lovely and intelligent Arlene Ocontrillo. But they met at Gilt and both work at Corton, so that doesn’t count.) We see him smolder when the lighting in the soon-to-be elegant Corton casts shadows on his plates. The minute and exquisite details of plating those plates are practiced over and over again. Nobody sleeps much, and at one point Liebrandt says to the camera that the kitchen is like a theatrical show: at every moment a possible disaster. It’s a wonder, he muses, that so much young talent works so hard for him for so little money.

On opening day, Liebrandt addresses his staff as a football coach would his team: despite all the yelling and tough discipline, his warm affection for the crew is apparent. After the big day, Corton gets raves from every journalistic corner but the Times, which has yet to file its review. As the staff waits for Bruni to weigh in, an amusing scene transpires. Nieporent tries to figure out which reservation could be the critic’s: it turns out that the giveaway is a telephone number that doesn’t exist. Bruni comes to eat three times, and this time he’s hooked: Corton gets a rave and three stars. Liebrandt throws a party for his staff, congratulates them for a job well done, and warns that harder times are yet to come: in a year, he expects, they’ll get two stars from the Michelin Guide. And so they did.

Sally Rowe’s Liebrandt is an utterly convincing character, partly because he’s such a common-looking guy: skinny, with tattoo-covered arms, head topped by greasy and floppy black hair, sporting bad teeth (he’s British, after all), and in the earlier years looking like a spotty adolescent. He’s awkward and not very well-spoken. In one tender scene, Liebrandt exhibits starstruck awe while describing Pierre Gagnaire’s enthusiasm at his visit to Corton. Though they spoke for an hour after dinner, and Gagnaire recognized his face, he didn’t remember that Liebrandt had worked for him. Says Liebrandt to the camera: “I’m like, you changed my life, those words, and you changed my life, because of the mentality and what you showed me there. I just, it was like, thank you, and it was good.”

He’s also believable because of the admiration expressed by his young (and also tattooed) staff and because of the adulation of so many great chefs and critics depicted here. Since I’ve dined at Corton, I know they’re not exaggerating. It wasn’t quite right of me to say, in my article, that great chefs are both tyrants in their kitchens and slaves to their endeavor. The latter is true, the former not so. It would have been more accurate to say that great chefs are dictators in their kitchens. Tyrants rule lawlessly for their interests alone. Dictators, at least in the classical sense, rule lawlessly for the sake of some common good. The first scene of A Matter of Taste shows Liebrandt being photographed, covered in blood, holding up a repulsively mangled pig’s head (vegans beware!). “This is bound to attract the investors,” he says to the photographers. “Want to open a serious restaurant and they see photographs like this? No way. The guy’s a nut case. I’m not a nut case. I’m just an artist.” And so he is. And his art is the object of his Special Forces discipline in the kitchen. Our sizzling great chefs are idiosyncratic geniuses, but they can’t do it on their own. They know that a great restaurant has to be a perfect team, which is why they push the staff so hard. But they know that from the ranks of that staff, hopeful kids who devote their lives to their master might someday surpass them.

Historically, traditional high cuisine was the product of aristocracy, class rigidity, and servitude. Not so modern high cookery, especially its American (and British) vanguard. At one point in A Matter of Taste, Liebrandt refers to the cuisine he “came to this country” to create. That’s not quite fair on his part, since the British gastronomical revolution began during the free-enterprise Thatcher years. And globalization will spread the gustatory wealth around the planet. But for now, I think, culinary artistry will shine brightest in the Good Ol’ U.S.A., because we’re the home of free enterprise and the second and third chance, a place where it matters not who you are but what you can do. If you like food and have HBO on demand, don’t miss this exciting and revelatory documentary.

Jerry Weinberger is a University Distinguished Professor of political science at Michigan State University, director of the LeFrak Forum at Michigan State, and an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute.

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